education in the Philippines

[New School] Debunking the ‘learning styles’ myth

Julan Omir Aldover
[New School] Debunking the ‘learning styles’ myth
'This idea has long been debunked by studies dating back to the 1970s. Yet, the myth lives on.'

Are you a visual learner? Do you learn faster by listening to lectures? Are you able to grasp the lesson contents better by doing related physical activities?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, well, you’re wrong. Or rather, what you have is a mistaken perception that your preferred learning style (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic) allows you to better understand what is being taught to you. This idea has long been debunked by studies dating back to the 1970s. Yet, the myth lives on.

Any discussion of this myth must be related to real-world policy debates on how to improve the abysmal state of our country’s education system. In my experience, many of my peers will often support the idea of reforming pedagogy to cater to each student’s preferred learning style. They relate this theory to themselves, the claim being that they will perform better academically if only they were taught using their learning styles.

In a sense, their claims are justified. When you look at the classroom environment decades ago and in 2019 right before COVID-19 hit, not much has changed from the “command and control” setup that dominated the classroom during the days of black and white. The top-down relationship between teachers and students has been the standard picture of the Filipino classroom. The setup is dated; it creates a sense of antiquity of the education system among students. The natural consequence of this is for people to draw a line between the antiquated education system and the country’s poor educational outcomes. Since people associate non-learning style-catered instruction with traditional pedagogy, it will receive some of the blame for the poor learning outcomes.

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Indeed, no person can reasonably argue that an education system where 91% of children aged 10 cannot even comprehend simple texts is anything but abysmal. Yet one must caution against using such statistics to power through educational reforms. After all, these reforms incur costs. Put aside the practical difficulties of having teachers adapt to the specific learning modes of each of their tens of students. One must prove with clear-cut evidence that such reforms, if undertaken, will lead to better learning for our students. The literature, however, has leaned towards the contrary. As one paper noted, 

However, when these tendencies are put to the test under controlled conditions, they make no difference — learning is equivalent whether students learn in the preferred mode or not. A favorite mode of presentation (e.g., visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) often reveals itself to be instead a preference for tasks for which one has high ability and at which one feels successful. 

If there is no identifiable difference in learning outcomes between those who learn in their preferred learning modalities and those who do not, implementing this method of differentiated teaching means wasting time and resources without any benefit incurred to students. The cost-benefit scale would obviously tip towards not implementing this kind of pedagogy, and resources will be better spent on other changes that will lead to better education outcomes.

Studies do show a number of improvements that can be made to our education system. Of primary importance is the better harnessing of private sector involvement in the education industry both in basic education and in higher education. Test scores of students from private schools have been better than those from public schools, yet shares in total enrollment in both basic and higher education by private education institutions have been declining. Improving the school environment may also enhance learning as there is a link between student attitudes towards school and academic performance. As it stands, Grade 5 students in the Philippines have lower positive attitudes about school compared to the average in the Southeast Asian region.

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Reforms concerning teaching methods that do work and are supported by the data include greater incorporation of multimedia techniques into the instruction method. Using different modes (e.g., PowerPoint presentations, animations, audio-music records) to present information allows the teacher to capture the interest of the students for a longer duration, which will improve learning. This, however, does not mean that the mode of presentation must be suited specifically to a student’s learning style as the benefits of such remain to be seen. It does mean that variety trumps specificity in targeting what instruction method works best for students.

While problems in the education system have existed for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated learning losses in the country’s student population. Projections on learning outcomes made during the pandemic will undoubtedly be worse than those made before it, as lockdowns and other restrictions significantly reduced the efficacy of an already ineffective education system. The country must recuperate the losses with a bounce-back that exceeds even learning projections made prior to the pandemic. The government will have to incorporate some sound policies to achieve this. But sound policy must be evidence-backed, and reforming along the lines of learning styles lacks this evidentiary requirement. – Rappler.com

Julan Omir Aldover is a 4th year Political Science student from Leyte Normal University.

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